This is part of a series of posts dedicated to the exploration of Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn, a UNESCO World Heritage site covering an entire area of 82,400 ha. The next few paragraphs will be about the site’s universal value (the reason why it is inscribed on the World Heritage list) and a brief introduction to various viewpoints, hiking trails and attractions in different regions in and around the inscribed area. If you have already read other posts related to the property, please click here to jump directly to the main content of this one.
As the UNESCO comments:
The extension of the natural World Heritage property of Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn (first inscribed in 2001), expands the site to the east and west, bringing its surface area up to 82,400 ha., up from 53,900. The site provides an outstanding example of the formation of the High Alps, including the most glaciated part of the mountain range and the largest glacier in Eurasia. It features a wide diversity of ecosystems, including successional stages due particularly to the retreat of glaciers resulting from climate change. The site is of outstanding universal value both for its beauty and for the wealth of information it contains about the formation of mountains and glaciers, as well as ongoing climate change. It is also invaluable in terms of the ecological and biological processes it illustrates, notably through plant succession. Its impressive landscape has played an important role in European art, literature, mountaineering and alpine tourism.
自然世界遗产少女峰–阿雷奇冰河–毕奇霍恩峰（最早于2001年被列入）从东部扩展到西部，面积从53 900公顷扩展到82 400公顷。该遗址为阿尔卑斯高山——包括山脉最受冰河作用的部分和欧亚大陆山脉最大的冰川——的形成提供了一个杰出的实例。它以生态系统多样性为特点，包括特别受气候变化冰川融化而形成的演替阶段。该遗址因景色秀美、而且包含山脉和冰川形成以及正在发生的气候变化方面的丰富知识而具有突出的全球价值。在它尤其通过植物演替所阐释的生态和生物过程方面，该遗址的价值无法衡量。其令人难忘的景观在欧洲艺术、文化、登山和阿尔卑斯山旅游中起着重要作用。
In order to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the ten Criteria for Selection. Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn meets
Criterion (vii): to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance, because the impressive landscape within the property has played an important role in European art, literature, mountaineering and alpine tourism. What’s the top 1 attraction in Switzerland? The Alps. What’s the most famous part of the Alps? The Jungfrau region. The area around Jungfrau, Aletschhorn and Bietschhorn, which includes the imposing north wall of the High Alps featuring Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau and on the southern side many spectacular peaks and a valley system containing Europe’s largest glacier, is globally recognized as one of the most spectacular mountain regions to visit;
Criterion (viii): to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features, because the property provides an outstanding record of the geological processes that formed the High Alps and is abundant in diverse geomorphological features such as U-shaped glacial valleys, cirques, horns, valley glaciers and moraines. 20 – 40 million years ago, through uplifting and compressing, the formation of the High Alps began. Ranging from 809 m to 4,274 m high, the mountains in the property show 400-million-year-old crystalline rocks thrust over younger carbonate rocks due to the northward drift of the African tectonic plate. As the most glaciated part of the Alps, the site contains the largest and longest glacier in Europe – the Aletsch Glacier, which shows a range of classic glacial features. Furthermore, the glacier provides vital information about glacial history and ongoing processes, in particular related to climate change.
and Criterion (ix): to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals, because within the property, diverse flora and fauna are represented in a range of habitats, and plant colonization in the wake of retreating glaciers provides an outstanding example of plant succession. Covering a wide range of altitudes and exposures (such as the dry southern side and wet northern side), the property includes diverse alpine and sub-alpine habitats. On the crystalline and carbonate rocks, a variety of ecosystems have evolved without significant human intervention. Particularly worth mentioning is the upper and lower tree-line of the Aletsch forest, a superb example of plant succession. The global phenomenon of climatic change, which is reflected in the varying retreating rates of the glaciers, is particularly well-illustrated in the region, providing new substrates for plant colonization.
As you can see from the map above, the inscribed area is huge, so how can we explore it? Before giving you some suggestions based on my own experience and the information on www.jungfraualetsch.ch, let’s first learn some facts about the property:
- surface of the World Heritage area: 824 km2
- Population of the World Heritage region: 40,000 inhabitants
- 23 municipalities in the cantons of Valais (15) and Bern (8) are involved
- 9 mountains within the area are over 4000 meters and Finsteraarhorn is the highest peak (4274 m)
- around 50 mountains within the area are over 3500 meters
- the glaciers cover a total area of 350 km2
- the longest and largest glacier in the Alps, Aletsch Glacier (23 km) is located at the center of this protected area
- 88% of this area is without vegetation
- the Bernese Alps (Wetterhorn – Schreckhorn – Eiger – Mönch – Jungfrau – Gletscherhorn – Breithorn – Blüemlisalp) are considered one of the most famous mountain ranges in the world
As you might have noticed, most of the inscribed area is not accessible to normal tourists as it’s made up of either high mountains or glaciers. However, there are many viewpoints on the mountains around the property, most of which are conveniently connected to bus stops or train stations by cable cars. Personally, I strongly recommend the viewpoints within and around the Aletsch Arena, which provide amazing views of the Aletsch Glacier, Aletschhorn, Bietschhorn, Jungfrau, Mönch, Fiescherhorn and so on, and within the Jungfrau region including Grosse Scheidegg, First, Schynige Platte, Männlichen, Jungfraujoch, Schilthorn and so on, from which you can see clearly the northern wall of the High Alps featuring the signature Swiss skyline of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. If you are a hiker, you have many more options and can get a closer look at the World Heritage site. Besides the numerous hiking trails in Jungfrau and Aletsch regions, I recommend you checking out the Lötschental Valley, Kandertal Valley (Gasterntal Valley and Lake Oeschinensee), and Rosenlauital Valley (Rosenlaui Glacier Gorge).
Exploring the regions I mentioned above will probably take you a very long time because they offer numerous viewpoints, hiking trails and attractions, and after that, I believe you will have a very good understanding of the universal value of the property such as its unparalleled beauty, exceptional record of the formation of the Alps, excellent demonstration of diverse geomorphological features and remarkable representation of on-going ecological and biological processes. If you are still not satisfied and want to have a completer experience, try visiting the municipalities of Raron, Eggerberg, Guttanen (Grimselwelt), Innertkirchen and Meiringen, where you will find more activities closely or remotely related to the World Heritage site. I read from the official website that there’s a long tour which allows you to hike around the property and discover and learn about it in 15 stages. The booklet providing relevant information regarding the routes and attractions is called «Key to the Alps», which is unfortunately only available in German. I think, even if you don’t speak German or plan to take the complete tour, the booklet should shed some light on the planning of your own expedition. Alternatively, there is a fold-out map available in English with overview and tips regarding highlights of the World Heritage site. I can send the digital version to you upon request and I’m sure it will also give you some inspiration.
- To find out the destinations and highlights recommended by jungfraualetsch.ch please click here.
- To find out the destinations and hiking tours recommended by myswissalps.ch please click here.
As I mentioned above, most of the inscribed area is not easily accessible to normal visitors and some parts of it are not clearly visible from the surrounding viewpoints. How can we gain deeper insights into this mysterious world then? Last but not least, don’t forget to visit the municipality of Naters, where the World Nature Forum Information and Visitor Center of the UNESCO World Heritage site Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch is located. In order to protect this extraordinary natural heritage and to promote sustainable development of this region, 23 municipalities within the cantons of Bern and Valais together with the Swiss Federation have agreed to work in collaboration. The World Nature Forum (WNF) is the base camp of this commission and its Information and Visitor Center provides us with necessary knowledge about this region and helps to raise our awareness of the importance of its protection. If it’s inconvenient for you to reach the area, you can also learn about it at home. On the official website, 19 thematic brochures (more in German) giving insights into the uniqueness, diversity and beauty of the region are available and can be downloaded as pdf. The thematic brochures are about agriculture and settlement, tourism and traffic, fauna and flora, water, culture, glacier, climate, and mountains while the regional brochures are about Oberhasli, Naters, Lötschental, “Suonen”, Raron – Niedergesteln, Grimselwelt, Kandertal, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Aletsch Region, and Bellwald.
I hope my introduction above gives you a general idea of why the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region is so valuable and how to explore and learn about it. In a series of posts about the World Heritage site, I’ll focus on the hikes, viewpoints and tours I experienced and provide you with practical information, tips as well as detailed introduction to the geological and ecological processes, geomorphological features and ecosystems which are related to the property.
1. Wengen – a fantastic viewpoint of the Lauterbrunnen Valley
Wengen is a lovely town above the Lauterbrunnen Valley and it takes only about 15 mins to reach it by train from the Lauterbrunnen station. This train is actually the one going to Keine Scheidegg, the starting point of the rack railway to Jungfraujoch. If you plan to visit the highest train station in Europe, I strongly recommend you to get off here and have a walk around, during which you’ll discover countless fantastic viewpoints. The reason why I visited the town was to gain a commanding view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which is one of the most spectacular valleys in Switzerland. Due to its U-shape, it’s depicted in many school books as a classic example of trough valley. Where’s the best viewpoint? Well, I was actually truly overwhelmed by its magnificence while hiking down from Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, which took only an hour. Below, I’ll first introduce the Lauterbrunnen Valley and what you can do in and around it, and then I’ll give you some tips about the hike between the two towns.
Please note, the train ride between Lauterbrunnen and Wengen is included in the Swiss Travel Pass (for tourists), GA and Tageskarte (Day Pass for Switzerland).
1.1 The Lauterbrunnen Valley
In the Bernese Oberland around 25,000 years ago, ice covered the mountainous landscape and the V-shaped notches that streams had previously dug into the rock. Only the highest peaks could be seen. Nothing seemed to move but under their enormous weight, the ice masses which were up to over 1000 meters thick were moving on the slopes of the Jungfrau massif. Its pressure heated the glacier bottom and consequently, the ice began to glide on the melting water, transporting huge amounts of rubble, which varied from small pebbles to huge boulders. Gravel at the bottom acted like sandpaper and kept rubbing, pushing, sanding and scraping the ground and flanks, changing the V-shaped valley slowly to a new shape. The force in the center was the strongest, which resulted in the flat valley floor bounded by hundred-meter-high cliffs, while the force at the edges was much weaker, which resulted in the terrasse-like, gently inclined plateaus, which mark the peak of the glacier. The explanation of the formation of the valley is based on what I read from the website of the Jungfrau region. If you want to know more about it, please click here.
The valley with its 72 waterfalls, gigantic rock faces, mountain peaks and alpine meadows has inspired many writers including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and J. R. R. Tolkien. As I read from Wikipedia, Goethe’s poem “Gesang der Geister über den Wassern” (“Spirit Song over the Waters“) was written while he stayed at the parish house near the Staubbachfälle (Staubbach Falls) in Lauterbrunnen, and after hiking from Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnental in 1911, the landscape of the valley provided Tolkien with the concept and pictorial model for his sketches and watercolours of the fictitious valley of Rivendell. What’s more, Lauterbrunnen was featured in several scenes from the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
If I remember correctly, I’ve been to Lauterbrunnen four times already. Once on my way to Jungfraujoch, twice on my way to Schilthorn – Piz Gloria and once on my way to Männlichen. I’ve been visiting the attractions around Lauterbrunnental but unfortunately I haven’t really explored the valley itself yet. As I read from the website of the tourism office of Lauterbrunnen, there’s a flat walk (distance: 7.97 km, difficulty level: easy-medium, time requirement: 2.5 h, highest point: 922 m, ascent: 120 m) through the valley from the village (Lauterbrunnen) to Stechelberg which offers deep insights into the 72 waterfalls including the famous Staubbach Falls and Mürrenbach Fall gushing down from the vertical cliff faces, some of which are several hundred meters high. As I read from the website of the tourism office of Stechelberg, the Rear Lauterbrunnen Valley, which is located inside the World Heritage site Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn, also has a wealth of scenic and cultural assets. Therefore, six World Heritage Themed Trails (alpine economy, mountain hotels, power spots (for meditators), waterfalls, history and fables, and flora and fauna) were created, each of which leads from the information panel in Stechelberg into the rear valley. Just follow the symbol of your chosen theme on the brown signs and on the way, you will see info boards linked to the specific theme. In the future, I’d love to walk through the valley (from the village to Stechelberg and then take one or two of the themed trails) and discover its waterfalls and traces of the retreat of glaciers.
Besides the hiking trails mentioned above, there are some more highlights in and around the valley and now I’ll introduce them to you briefly. If you have a particular interest in any of them, please read the relevant detailed post.
- Jungfraujoch (3454m) – the Jungfrau railway has been plying its way through a 7-km-long tunnel inside Eiger and Mönch to the highest station in Europe, the ultimate excursion destination in the Bernese Oberland, since 1912. If you come to Switzerland, this is an experience you shouldn’t miss.
- Kleine Scheidegg – as the starting point of the rack railway to Jungfraujoch, it provides an impressive view of the north face of Eiger and the four-thousand-meter peaks of Jungfrau and Mönch. It’s also the starting point of the easy hike Kleine Scheidegg – Männlichen (distance: 4.3 km, duration: 1 h 15 m, ascent: 1 m, descent: 170 m).
- Männlichen – starting point of the Royal Walk to the summit of Männlichen and of the easy hike Männlichen – Kleine Scheidegg (distance: 4.3 km, duration: 1 h 15 m, ascent: 1 m, descent: 170 m), both of which provide an amazing view of the High Alps.
- Schilthorn – the panoramic revolving restaurant at the summit, Piz Gloria (2970 m), was featured in the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and provides an amazing view of 40 mountain peaks and 20 glaciers including Titlis, Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau and even Mont Blanc. At Birg, the intermediate station between Mürren and Schilthorn, challenge yourself on the Trill Walk, a 200-meter cliff pathway under the cableway station.
- Trümmelbach Falls – one of the wildest glacier ravines in Europe with 10 waterfalls of the Trümmelbach hidden amongst the rocks. In Europe, they are the only glacial waterfalls which are inside the mountain and still accessible to the public. A UNESCO World Natural Heritage.
- Staubbach Falls – on the edge of the village of Lauterbrunnen, the water plunges almost 300 meters from an overhanging cliff face. It was the inspiration for Goethe’s famous poem “Spirit Song Over The Waters”. From the foot of the waterfall, a path leads up to the Staubbach Gallery, where the fall can be observed up close. After rain, and early in the season, the force of the stream above the fall is strong enough to carry the water clear of the precipice, and the whole mass descends in a condition of liquid dust, which sways to and fro with gentle breeze.
- Isenfluh – one of the typical Swiss mountain villages and above it, you get an impressive view of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.
1.2 Hiking between Lauterbrunnen and Wengen
The so-called “Hohstäg”, the trail between Lauterbrunnen and Wengen, is part of the classic Bernese Oberland tour, which from the 18th century has been attracting intellectuals and tourists in search of the grand nature experience of the alpine landscape. The hike from Lauterbrunnen begins with a wide trail to Zwirgi. From there it winds steeply up around many hairpin bends in a shady mountain forest to Wengen, set almost 500 meters higher on a sunny terrace. The reason for the steep ascent is the landscape fashioned by the hinteren Lauterbrunnental Glacier during the last Ice Age. The holiday resort of Wengen is a typical picturesque mountain village. It is still free of individual motorized traffic and thus a paradise for pedestrians.
- The distance of the hike is 2.95 km and it takes around 1 – 1.5 hours to finish;
- you can choose to hike up (Lauterbrunnen to Wengen) or hike down (Wengen to Lauterbrunnen). Combine the hike with a train ride (between Lauterbrunnen and Wengen) to make the whole trip easier;
- if you choose to hike up, the ascent is 487 m and the descent is 9 m;
- the difficulty level of the hike is easy;
- if you choose to hike down, I strongly recommend using walking sticks. I forgot to take them and the downward hike hurt my knees quite badly;
- highlight on the way is the unobstructed view of the High Alps such as the Jungfrau (4158 m), Silberhorn (3695 m), Grosshorn (3754 m), Breithorn (3785 m) and Tschingelhorn (3576 m), of the glaciers, the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and of the many waterfalls including the Staubbach Falls. Please note, the hike provides one of the best opportunities to overlook the impressive Lauterbrunnen Valley.
- though the trail can be managed with normal sports shoes, hiking shoes are recommended. There are a few sections which are rather steep and a bit slippery due to dust. Just be careful if you choose to hike down;
- several benches on the way facing the High Alps and the valley are ideal places for recharging yourself. Remember to take some snacks and enough water with you;
- I took the trail in September, when the temperature was a bit low in the mountains. I was wearing a thin winter jacket and long pants when I arrived at Wengen but changed to t-shirt and shorts shortly because of the sun and exercise;
- sun cream is a must for a sunny day and don’t forget to protect the back of your neck as well;
- the train ride between Lauterbrunnen and Wengen is included in the Swiss Travel Pass (for tourists), GA and Tageskarte (Day Pass for Switzerland);
- from Wengen, you can take a cable car to reach Männlichen, starting point of the Royal Walk to the summit of Männlichen and of the easy hike Männlichen – Kleine Scheidegg (distance: 4.3 km, duration: 1 h 15 m, ascent: 1 m, descent: 170 m), both of which provide amazing views of the High Alps;
- please note, the train ride from Wengen onwards towards Kleine Scheidegg is not included in the Swiss Travel Pass (for tourists), GA or Tageskarte (Day Pass for Switzerland) anymore.
2. Staubbach Falls
- Height: 297 m
- Type: Single Drop
- River Name: Staubbach
- Drainage Area: 2.3 square kilometers
With a height of nearly 300 meters, Staubbach Falls is one of the 72 waterfalls of the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the third highest waterfall in Switzerland. In the summer, warm winds swirl the water around, so that the fall sprays in all directions. These droplets of water spray gave the brook and the waterfall its name (“Staub” means “dust” in English). Compared to some magnificent roaring waterfalls I’ve seen such as the Rhine Falls in Switzerland, the Niagara Falls in the USA, and the Iguazu Falls in Brazil, I found the Staubbach Falls particularly elegant. As I was approaching it, it looked like a satin waistband hanging over the edge of the cliff, swirling and shining in the sun. Before embarking on your journey to the Staubbach Gallery, you will see two panels offering historic and scientific background information on this natural phenomenon including its first measurement and accounts of the travels of Goethe and other famous people. It is written that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe toured the Lauterbrunnen Valley in 1779 with Duke Karl August von Weimar. The writer reports in the accounts of his travels how the sight of the Staubbach Waterfall delighted him, remarking that: “It is a very wonderful thing.” During his visit to Lauterbrunnen, Goethe wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the Waters” in recollection of the Staubbach. Another writer, Lord Byron, wrote in his diary in September 1816, how the sun made a rainbow at the Staubbach Waterfall: “I have never seen anything like it. It looked just like a rainbow, which came down for a visit, and was so near that one could just step into it.”
2.1 Staubbach Gallery
If you visit the Staubbach Falls in the summer, make sure not to miss the Staubbach Gallery, which can be accessed conveniently through a path from the foot of the waterfall. From the gallery, the fall can be observed up close, and because the whole mass descends in a condition of liquid dust, which sways to and fro with gentle breeze, it will probably give you a soft kiss.
- The gallery is only open in the summer and can be visited free of charge;
- it can be easily reached through a path within 10 mins from the foot of the fall;
- the foot of the fall can be reached by foot from the town centre of Lauterbrunnen within 7 mins;
- at the foot of the fall, there’s a fountain for filling your bottle;
- from the gallery, you can see the mist caused by the fall, the Silberhorn, the town of Lauterbrunnen and the Lauterbrunnen Valley;
- you might get wet (only a little bit so don’t worry too much) on the way or in the gallery but on a sunny summer day, that would feel super cool!